What is constipation?

Constipation occurs when bowel movements become difficult or less frequent than normal. The frequency or time between bowel movements ranges widely from person to person. Some people have bowel movements several times a day while others only one to two times a week. Going longer than three days without a bowel movement is too long. After three days, the stool becomes harder and more difficult to pass.

What causes constipation?

Constipation is most commonly caused by inadequate fiber in the diet or a disruption of the regular diet or routine. Chronic constipation may be due to a poor diet, dehydration, certain medications (such as antidepressants, strong pain medications), stress, or the pressure of other activities that force you to ignore the urge to empty the bowel.

Various medical conditions can also cause or aggravate constipation. Some of the more common medical conditions that cause constipation include endocrine problems, such as decreased function of the thyroid gland or diabetes. Colorectal cancer is another medical condition that can cause constipation but it usually also accompanied by other symptoms including blood in the stool and weight loss. Common causes of constipation include the following:

  • A diet low in fiber
  • Not drinking enough water
  • Lack of exercise
  • Travel or another change in routine
  • Eating large amounts of milk or cheese
  • Stress or resisting the urge to have a bowel movement
  • Medications
    • Strong pain medicines such as narcotics
    • Antidepressants
    • Antacids containing calcium or aluminum such as TUMS
    • Iron pills
    • Allergy medications such as antihistamines
    • Certain blood pressure medicines
    • Psychiatric medications
    • Herbal supplements
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Pregnancy
  • Neurologic disorders including spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Slow transit of the colon